Photo courtesy Chérie Rivers Ndaliko and Yolé!Africa

The Art of Emergency: Aid and Aesthetics in African Crises, co-edited with Chérie Rivers Ndaliko. New York: Oxford University Press, 2020.

The Art of Emergency: Aesthetics and Aid in African Crises interrogates the combustive force of creativity erupting in the wake of material crises across the African continent. Art produced in the context of emergency—whether in the face of war, in spite of war, or subject to war—is not only directly implicated in local politics but moreover provides a map of the often illusive relationships between power and aesthetics. Through ethnographic and historic case studies, the scholars, artists, and activists in this book explore how actors on the ground employ creativity as a currency to regulate the practical functions and aesthetic forms laid bare by catastrophe. Simply put, our aim is to expose what art actually does in crisis. We actively resist the reflex to celebrate the presence of beauty amidst brutality as an affirmation of human resilience and, with equal vigilance, deny the temptation to translate the urgency of crisis into diluted measures of chaos and cacophony. Instead the chapters in this book collectively triage—that is, measure the urgency and assess the effects of—the art produced in African emergencies in relation to the complex tasks of demonstration, distribution, and remediation.

Our motivation grows out of our awareness that now more than ever, the relationships between artists and NGOs frame, inspire, and subvert responses to crises across Africa. As they negotiate disaster, both parties juggle the priorities of states, funders, and constituents with radical consequences. On the one hand, humanitarian efforts delimit the conditions of residents’ lived experience and consequently reshape their capacity and potential for future action, whether intentionally, as with sensitization and behavioral change projects, or inadvertently, as with unconscious impositions of Western funding priorities. On the other hand, international interventions are met with local resistance and quests for self-determination, as subjects seek to define their own sociopolitical priorities and mobilize their own conceptions of the role of culture in social change. Imposed, implied, or inspired, these projects stage interventions, choreograph social movements, narrate collective histories, sculpt bodies politic, and orchestrate public debate. The aesthetics of these processes—the means by which they deploy sensation—are fundamental to their reception, implementation, and impact.

The Art of Emergency: Aesthetics and Aid in African Crises is co-edited by myself and Chérie Rivers Ndaliko (UNC Chapel Hill) and features contributions from anthropologists, art historians, ethnomusicologists, folklorists, literary scholars and artists working across the continent. More information is available at: